Monday, June 13, 2011

Unforgiving Morale, Unforgotten Values

I read two books in the past week, The Unforgiving Minute and Ultramarathon Man. Both are autobiographies by supremely disciplined men whose commitment to overcome any obstacle sees them past severe physical and mental hardship. In The Unforgiving Minute, a recently discharged lieutenant in the US Army charts his growth as a leader from his student days at West Point and Oxford to the military trials he faced in Ranger School and leading a platoon in Afghanistan. Ultramarathon Man is the story of an otherwise mild guy, whose exploits— running more than 350 miles (560 km) without rest, 135 miles (217 km) nonstop in 120°F (49°C) heat, a marathon at the South Pole— have to be read with eyes agog to be believed.

Like anyone else, I am inspired and informed by both reads. As a soldier in the IDF, a young man who volunteered to serve out of deep convictions in the necessity if not the nobility of his military service, the two men's stories strike a deeper chord. They remind me of the discipline and commitment, the passion and desire, I want to believe exists in my military service. I am also reminded of the demands placed on a young man called to lead his peers into battle, a position I sought to pursue when I first enlisted. Reading the two books was not easy, since the values and goals they remind me of are so distant, so foreign, from the army in which I serve.

The author’s experience in Ranger School, the unforgiving nine-week combat leadership course in the US Army, brought home the absence of these values in my service. Ranger School is said to be one of the most physically rigorous combat courses in the world. But the part of the course that grabbed my attention is the values that instructors and trainees alike, at least in the pages of The Unforgiving Minute, constantly evoke. To be one of the fifty percent of Ranger students that pass the course, it is not enough to be a natural leader in fantastic shape with a strong record of accomplishments. You have to embrace the Ranger mantra that you are a soldier that never quits, never fails, and serves alongside the best of the best for the most noble of reasons. In other words, you must accept and become a part of the culture of excellence demanded of Rangers.

While my former unit in the Air Force had a similar culture, the environment in the regular army is very different. Excellence is a distant cousin of an established mediocrity. Worse is the widespread malaise, or as we say in Hebrew, the swamp-like sense of shavuz that pervades entire battalions. There is little sense of working to be the very best we can. Maybe Israel’s socialist past is to blame yet a fiery ambition is all too absent in the Israeli Army.

Considering that Israel’s enemies are literally at our gates if not within our walls, there is a tragic irony in the lack of passion and discipline in the army. Perhaps the difference between a draft and professional army, a mandatory and volunteer force, explains the malaise here versus the United States. Despite the benefits to morale that could come from serving in an army that draws its soldiers from across the country, the mandatory nature of the draft does the opposite.

My experience suggests that the blame lies within Israeli society, chiefly in the army itself. While army service is still generally respected and seen as a path to future success, within the army the educational values—Zionist, Jewish, democratic—that could strengthen morale are not taken advantage of as much as they could be. As I have written before, Zionism is generally absent in the IDF. National holidays often pass without a serious attempt to remind soldiers why they are sacrificing three years of their youth on their country’s behalf.

While the army has a whole staff of soldiers tasked with providing educational content, my experience shows that platoon leaders, the first and second lieutenants that run the army, are the most essential players in the state of their soldier’s morale. My previous lieutenant, for all the unpleasant memories he left with me, provided a sterling example of a leader who really channeled Zionist meaning into our training. Unfortunately the same cannot be said of my current platoon leader. Recognizing the critical role lieutenants play in the direction of the army does lend added ache to the regret I feel in not pursuing a goal I had at the start of my service.

Drawing a comparison between the US Army’s elite leadership course and the regular ranks of Israeli grunts is, I realize, unfair. For all I know (my knowledge of the US Army is limited to a few reads like Generation Kill), US grunts share much of the shavuz of their Israelis peers. Nevertheless, if I were to write a book about my military experience like the author of The Unforgiving Minute, I would not be able to describe a service underlined by the passion and commitment shared by the incredible ultramarathon man. Ironically, pursuing that discipline and desire was part of my reason for enlisting. Igniting my lost spark, is what I called it. Finding that purity of purpose. Perhaps a lesson is that no army, no brontosaurus-like institution, is the place to look for such commitment. Inner fire ultimately lies within, the actual jungle one must explore no matter what external goal or pursuit he seeks.

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